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March 15, 1995

Meet Brinsley Schwartz

Nick LoweNick Lowe, The Impossible Bird (Upstart Records/Rounder 1994) -- British pub-rocker Nick Lowe, who first gained stateside fame in the mid-70s with his work on Stiff Records, mellows it out for The Impossible Bird. With alternating streaks of wittiness, charm, and poignancy, The Impossible Bird is a friendly and highly-accessible disc.

Lowe, who is now 45, emerged from his early 70s pub-rock band, Brinsley Schwarz (with whom he wrote the classic "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding"), to help launch the British punk movement as a co-founder of Stiff Records.

Among his first production efforts were Graham Parker & the Rumor's debut album, Howling Wind, and My Aim is True (1977), the debut album from Elvis Costello. Nick went on to produce Elvis' first five albums, and guest appeared on bass on Costello's 1993 release, Brutal Youth.

In addition to work throughout the 80s as a producer, Nick also was one of the four musicians on Bring the Family (1987), the comeback album from John Hiatt.

Nick later joined Hiatt, Jim Keltner, and Ry Cooder in 1992 to form the much-acclaimed but short-lived Little Village (about which Lowe says, "It's a shame we left behind this rather limp record, which got limper and limper as certain members of the group messed around with it...Yet the last live shows we did were exquisite").

Notwithstanding his ability to turn out a perfect pop record (his nickname is "Basher," as in "Bash in out now and tart it up later"), Lowe also has firm roots in American country and rock music. He was married to country-rock's Carlene Carter, and wrote the song "The Beast in Me" for his former father-in-law, Johnny Cash (who performed it on last year's heralded American Recordings).

For his first record in nearly five years (after being unceremoniously dumped by Warner Bros., whom Lowe continues to call "the best record company in the business"), Lowe is joined by Robert Trehern on drums, Bill Kirchen on guitar and horns, Paul "Bassman" Riley on bass, and Garaint Watkins on organ and guitar.

Lowe has become fully focused on his songs, which he says happened after he "was encouraged by Elvis [Costello] to do some solo acoustic shows, what they now call Unplugged. And I really took to it: You're up there with just your guitar and voice and you will see, unbelievably swiftly, the weaknesses in your own material...After the age of 40, you've got to do stuff with some substance; otherwise, it's unseemly. And so unsexy."

There's nothing unseemly about The Impossible Bird. The songs often carry mixed signals; it's hard to tell if Lowe is serious (as on "The Beast in Me," which is about past alcohol and drug problems), or just pulling our legs (as on the semi-comic "Where's My Everything"). In addition, several songs are lover's laments, based in part on his recent breakup with British television star, Tracey MacLeod.

Highlights include the achingly beautiful "Shelley, My Love," a warm, organ-enhanced cover of the old Percy Sledge hit, "True Love Travels on a Gravel Road," and a twangy, country-pop version of "Twelve Step Program To Quit You Babe," which will surely be covered by country artists in the future. But you heard it here first.

Like his Rounder label mate, Greg Kihn, Lowe's an accomplished tunesmith and bon vivant who has mellowed and aged with grace. This kind of earnest, honest attention to detail and affection for his material is rarely found. Lowe's the real thing. Listen to The Impossible Bird.

Sheryl CrowGrammy Awards - In assessing this year's Grammy Award winners, several matters stand out. First is Sheryl Crow. Say what you will about Sheryl, her record label (A & M Records) stuck with her throughout. This album was originally released in August 1993; I give huge credit to A & M Records for continuing to work it until they turned it into a big seller. It's too bad more labels don't give this kind of support to their artists.

As to Tony Bennett, it's hard not to like the fellow. Whether you believe his MTV Unplugged was the album of the year, Tony's a gracious and endearing artist, and his live version of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" is irresistible. Hats off to Columbia Records for this surprise winner.

Tony BennettIt's also interesting to note that a number of famed rock artists won in non-rock categories. From the Cradle (Warner Bros.) by Eric Clapton won best traditional blues album; World Gone Wrong (Columbia) by Bob Dylan won best traditional folk album, and American Recordings (American) by Johnny Cash won best contemporary folk album. Ten or twenty years ago these awards might have been considered an insult; now, they seem appropriate.

Last, the hopelessly over-rated Don Was won producer of the year. While Don's been involved in some likeable projects (including Willie Nelson's comeback album, Across the Border), I generally find his presence obtrusive. For my money, the winner should have been T-Bone Burnett; his work with the BoDeans and Sam Phillips is impeccable, and always brings out the best in the artist.

-- Randy Krbechek

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